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Can John Yarmuth Save the Biden Agenda?

The House’s budget chief on reconciliation, the debt ceiling, and herding cats: “I’m trying not to play Joe Manchin.”

A close up of Representative John Yarmuth.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

There’s a truism among the Capitol Hill press corps that if you need someone to provide you with a colorful quote, Representative John Yarmuth is always up for it. The affable Democrat from Kentucky will hold court with gaggles of reporters during votes, frequently offering several minutes of extended analysis of the state of play for the Democratic agenda, peppered with the occasional bon mot. Thanks to his role as chair of the Budget Committee, which is currently shepherding the massive reconciliation bill through the House, he’s been in high demand.

“My job in this whole process is to move the reconciliation process as quickly as I can with as few problems as I can,” Yarmuth told me in an interview on Wednesday morning. Or as he put it another way, his job is to “herd Democratic cats.”

The reconciliation bill, which is still being crafted, is expected to include a host of Democratic priorities on childcare, health care, and climate change. The legislation is crafted by the various committees with germane jurisdiction, then packaged and reported to the floor by the Budget Committee—meaning that Yarmuth and his committee are critical players.

Democrats have arrived at a crucial juncture in the life of their legislative agenda, with two massive measures, the aforementioned reconciliation bill and a bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is currently set to be taken up on September 27, steaming toward completion. But several progressives, including Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, wary that they might come out on the losing end of what’s become an intraparty row with moderate Democrats, say they won’t vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill unless the reconciliation bill has been passed first, in accordance with an original pact made by leadership, conjoining the two. As the latter bill has not yet been released, the likelihood of the reconciliation bill getting passed first diminishes with each passing day.

Yarmuth says that he is “pretty optimistic we’ll get this done eventually,” but as for the reconciliation being bill ready by Monday? “That’s just not possible,” he said. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised moderates that the House would only vote on a reconciliation bill that could also be approved in the Senate, where Democrats have a 50-seat majority and one “no” vote could sink the bill.

“If we’re trying to have a bill that both the Senate and House can pass, the language hasn’t been written yet to do that,” Yarmuth said. But Pelosi is a shrewd leader and does not tend to bring votes to the floor that will fail. Yarmuth guessed that if the speaker believes the bipartisan bill does not have the votes, she will pull it from the floor—a development that would infuriate moderates.

Yarmuth, a member of the progressive caucus, told me that he would vote for the bipartisan bill if it were brought to the floor on Monday. Although he said that he does not advise his colleagues as to how to vote, he believes the bipartisan measure and the reconciliation bill will pass.

“What I’ve said to them all along is, you all can and should do all the posturing you want, because you need to stand up for your principles, your priorities, but eventually you’re all going to vote for both these bills,” Yarmuth said.

Several progressive and moderate Democrats from both houses of Congress, as well as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, visited the White House on Thursday to address the impasse. Pelosi said after the meeting with President Joe Biden that the House is “on schedule” with regard to an infrastructure vote on Monday.

Yarmuth said that he would not be traveling to the White House on Wednesday, as there is “no reason” for him to do so.

“As I’ve been saying for six months now, we’re all Joe Manchin. And I’m trying not to play Joe Manchin,” Yarmuth said, referencing Senator Joe Manchin, the moderate Democrat from West Virginia who has raised concerns about the price tag of the reconciliation bill. The final bill will have to appease Manchin in order to pass the Senate, a fact that progressives find vexing, considering that it may mean a lower top line. Given the narrow Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, nearly any member has the power to gum up the works.

But Yarmuth sees his role right now as a team player, not as someone raising issues for Democratic leadership. “I’m trying to be the one that says, both these things are good government policy,” he said.

That doesn’t mean that Yarmuth will be happy if the cost of the reconciliation bill is cut. “The top line is meaningless. The policy is what’s important, and the benefits to the American people are what’s important. And if you cut the top line, all you’re doing is guaranteeing that one or more—there will definitely be more than one—of these initiatives will not be as effective as we would like it to be,” he said.

Yarmuth was first elected to the House in 2006, and ascended to the position of Budget Committee chair when Democrats regained the majority in the House in 2018. Although his first race was tight, he has repeatedly won reelection by a comfortable margin in a relatively solid blue district that encompasses most of metropolitan Louisville. And while some might assume that Kentucky Democrats might trend more moderate, they would assume incorrectly. Yarmuth is a reliable progressive vote and was a co-sponsor of the Medicare for All Act of 2019.

Under Yarmuth’s leadership, the Budget Committee has ventured into issues such as climate change, immigration, and health care, investigating in hearings and documents how these issues affect and are affected by the federal budget. On Tuesday, Yarmuth joined several other Democrats in introducing the Protecting Our Democracy Act, which aims to strengthen congressional powers against the executive, including the power of the purse.

“He’s been constantly trying to make the committee relevant to today’s major issues and challenges. He’s intentionally inserted the committee and its members into deliberations and debates that most Budget Committee chairs haven’t done,” Toby Moffett, a former congressman and friend of Yarmuth, told me. Moffett said that Pelosi “trusts him intuitively” and that their bond makes his position as chair less difficult.

Yarmuth has a far more contentious relationship with his most famous constituent, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He has slammed McConnell’s refusal to raise the debt ceiling even as the country edges toward the brink of default. Yarmuth said that he did not believe McConnell would back down from his position, but other Republicans might.

“I think what is more likely to happen is a bunch of his members come to him and say, ‘This is too much heat, Mitch. We’re gonna vote together, we’re gonna vote for the bill, we’re gonna vote to raise the debt ceiling,’” he said. “So he may not back down, but I think some of his members will.” (This guess may be overly optimistic, given that 10 Republicans would be needed and 46 GOP senators recently signed a letter saying that they would not support raising the debt limit.)

Republicans have pointed to a quote from Yarmuth that Democrats could raise the debt limit through reconciliation as proof that Democrats should just go it alone. Yarmuth said on MSNBC on Sunday that “we can do it through reconciliation,” but that Democratic leadership wanted to avoid that option because “we have to actually specify a number,” unlike suspending the debt limit to a certain date. But he told me on Wednesday that he believed it was “highly unlikely that we will do it through reconciliation.”

“I think leadership is pretty dug in on that,” he said, floating other options that the administration can pursue, such as minting a coin to cover the debt or looking into whether the debt ceiling is unconstitutional.

Yarmuth said later on Wednesday that there was insufficient time to address the debt ceiling through reconciliation, citing “parliamentary obstacles,” and adding that “the ball is now in Senator McConnell’s court.” It would certainly be inconvenient and time-consuming to use reconciliation as the vehicle to raise the limit, and Republicans could do plenty to gum up the works, but it’s theoretically not impossible. The X Date—that nifty nickname we have for when the country defaults on its debts and the global economy is plunged into chaos—is currently estimated to be in mid- to late October, which means there is some time to act.

Yarmuth has not been quiet about his disdain for the debt ceiling; in an interview with MSNBC on Tuesday, he called it “stupid.” Yarmuth told me that he had recommended raising the debt limit to a “gazillion dollars,” or some such exceedingly high number, because that would mean Congress wouldn’t have to go through the regular ordeal of raising the ceiling or verging on default.

“I think if you raise it $2 trillion, or $3 trillion, in six months from now or eight months from now, you’re right back in the same spot, and you provide the same opportunity for mischief and brinkmanship and hostage-taking, and it just doesn’t make any sense.”